People face appearance-based discrimination on a daily basis, at work, in schools and in public spaces. In addition, a decade of soaring social media use, increased exposure to online advertising and a persistent and pervasive diet culture, mean that concerns about the way we look start younger, last longer, and affect more people than ever before. Over the past 10 years, both the Government and academics have produced a wealth of research and made numerous policy recommendations on how to tackle negative body image for people across the UK. Despite this, Government action in this area continues to be limited.
Our survey into body image uncovered the scale of the problem. 61% of adults and 66% of children feel negative or very negative about their body image most of the time, and these figures are even higher for specific groups including women, people with disabilities and transgender people. Lockdown has undoubtedly worsened existing body image anxieties and inspired new insecurities for thousands of people across the country. In particular, we are alarmed by the rapidly rising rates in eating disorders and other mental health conditions. The impact of the pandemic, both on eating disorder sufferers and those at a high risk of developing an eating disorder, has been devastating. The Government needs to urgently understand why eating disorder rates are rising to address the alarming rise as the country reopens post-pandemic.
We recommend that the Government reviews why eating disorder rates in the UK are rising, and ensures its research is inclusive of all groups in which eating disorder rates are rising. Given the high mortality rates associated with eating disorders, and that eating disorder research receives just 96p per person affected annually, ringfenced funding for eating disorder research should be increased to at least £9 per person, the same amount that is spent per person on general mental health research. Funding for eating disorders must be in line with the prevalence and severity of the condition.
We have been hugely saddened to hear of the number of people who have faced appearance and weight-based discrimination when accessing NHS services. The use of BMI inspires weight stigma, contributes to eating disorders, and disrupts people’s body image and mental health. Public Health England should stop using BMI as a measure of individual health, and instead focus on a ‘Health at Every Size’ approach.
The Government’s latest Obesity Strategy is at best ineffective and at worst perpetuating unhealthy behaviours. We are disappointed to learn that there have been no reviews of the effectiveness of the current or previous obesity strategies. The Government must only use evidence-based policies in its Obesity Strategy and should urgently review it to determine the evidence base for its policies. We cannot support much-criticised and unevaluated weight-loss policies. In advance of a broad review, the Government should immediately scrap its plans to for calorie labels in restaurants, cafes, and takeaways, as these could negatively affect those with, or at risk of developing, eating disorders.
Encouraging positive body image during childhood and adolescence must be a priority. We commend the Government for introducing body image into the RSHE curriculum last year and hope this creates an opportunity for schools to address the concerns young people have about their body image. However, weighing children in primary schools under the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) is likely to cause harm to children’s mental health and could hinder the development of a positive body image. This is particularly damaging for Black children who are more likely to be incorrectly placed in the overweight or obese categories. We recommend that the Government urgently reviews the NCMP to assess the need for the programme and seek other ways to collect this data. The Department for Education should explore other policy initiatives to encourage schools to take a ‘whole school approach’ to encouraging positive body image.
We are disappointed about the lack of diversity in adverts both on and offline. We urgently want to see more companies advertising with real images of people from a diverse range of ethnicities, abilities, sexualities, genders, body shapes and sizes. We know that advertising is a powerful driver of consumer behaviour and protecting people from adverts, which can be pervasive online, needs to be a priority if the Government wishes to reduce negative body image. The Government should work with companies and the ASA to further encourage the use of diverse and representative images of people in advertising. We were pleased to hear from companies who are committed to advertising their products by using real images during our inquiry. However, a significant number of advertisers continue to rely heavily on image editing, which is detrimental to mental health and contributes to the development of poor body image. The Government should bring forward legislation to restrict or ban the use of altered images in commercial advertising and promotion.
We were pleased to see some progress on the Government’s Online Harms legislation during our inquiry, and we are of the view that any online content that contributes to the proliferation of negative body image is a ‘harm’. The Online Harms Bill should be a legislative priority and we ask that harms related to body image and appearance-related bullying are included within the scope of the legislation. Despite the number of controls in place on social media platforms, users continuously experience content that, by the platforms’ own admission, shouldn’t be accessible. We recommend that the Government should ensure that social media companies enforce their advertising rules and community guidelines. We also ask that the Government engages with social media companies on developing innovative solutions to protect users from body image harms encountered online, and that Ofcom works with groups at high risk of developing poor body image to ensure the new regulatory system works for them. Lastly, we heard extensively how young people are particularly at risk of developing poor body image, and access to social media and other online content is linked with negative feelings about appearance. We recommend that the Government ensures that any age verification or assurance processes used by online companies are effective and protect young people from harmful content.